The Old Weather project launched in 2010. It is a web based project in which members of the public volunteer their time to help climate scientists by transcribing weather observations written in historical shipping logs recovered from archives around the world.
We spoke to two highly active Old Weather contributors – Helen J [OW_1] and Joan Arthur [OW_2] – and two climate scientists that were involved in the project. We also spent time exploring and analysing the online forums that the community of volunteers use to communicate with one another.
Find out more in the Data Journey and Culture tabs below, then add a comment at the bottom of the page.
Once you have finished follow the blue line to Met Office on the right. Here you can read more about how Old Weather contributes to climate science in the ACRE section of the Met Office R&D tab. Or, if you are interested in finding out more about the historical shipping logs that the volunteers are transcribing follow the blue line on the left to Archives.
The Zooniverse platform
Digitised ship log books are loaded onto the Zooniverse online citizen science platform, ready for transcription by Old Weather citizen scientists.
The records are organised on the website in a small number of projects, for example Royal Navy records for 1914-22. In each project, the records are then organised by ship, and for each ship there might be a number of different voyages over a period of months or years.
Transcribing the log books
The Old Weather project’s citizen scientists select a ship and voyage to work on from those currently available, and then begin transcribing via the Zooniverse online platform. By the end of the first phase of transcribing Royal Navy log books in 2012, Old Weather volunteers had recovered around 1.6 million weather observations.
Watch the video below from the NOAA (National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, USA) to find out more.
The volunteers are free to choose which records to work on. Some people base their selection on having a personal interest in the ship or geographic region. Other reasons for selection include more practical concerns such as the ease of transcribing the sailor’s handwriting, or the need to complete a particular section of the project – for example, ensuring a series of records is fully transcribed:
This one really I just kind of landed on accidentally, I think I quite liked the picture of it to be honest, which was not a scientific reason at all. And the writing didn’t look too bad, and so I kind of got on it, and now I feel sort of responsible really, particularly because of this very, very long one, and nobody much seems terribly interested. I mean it’s been done by one person all the way through. He’s done the full lot. I’m the second person going pretty much all the way through, and then we’re going to have to try and persuade somebody else to do the third, or various people to come on and do, you know, and do a bit. So yeah, so I feel kind of responsible in a sense. [OW_1]
Once the volunteer has selected a record, they view the digitised logs on the website and transcribe key information into a simple online form. The type of information that they transcribe includes: date, time, location and the various weather observations such as temperature and humidity. An example log book page is shown in the image below:
Transcription can be a difficult task. The main challenge is deciphering the handwriting in the log books. There is significant variation between sailors – some having very clear handwriting and others an illegible scrawl.
Other challenges are decoding some of the words used in the notes section, and identifying place names accurately. Volunteers often turn to the Old Weather forum for help with these issues, posting snippets of log books so other volunteers can take a look and offer assistance.
Editing historical information
Written notes made by sailors about the weather and aspects of life on-board the ship are also optionally transcribed by some volunteers. Information captured in this way might include notes about on-board cargo, supplies, deaths of crew members, and even personal notes and doodles.
Once a log book is completed, these extra notes are edited by volunteers to remove duplication and improve consistency. These transcribed notes are useful for climate scientists to understand more about the context of the observations they are using, but they are also used by other researchers. Much of the historical data is uploaded to Naval-History.net so it can be accessed by professional and amateur historians.
Whilst the editing work is often more interesting, there is a certain level of responsibility and importance attached to transcribing. Transcribing activity was viewed as more important than editing in terms of volunteers supporting the needs of climate science.
I suppose at the moment I probably find the editing more satisfying. But I feel the transcribing is more the point of the whole thing. As I said, when I wasn’t transcribing I did feel a bit guilty. So at the moment I’m doing both, and I tend to alternate, you know I’ll do a day or two of transcribing and then a day or two of editing, and so on. And that feels like a reasonable balance. [OW_1]
To avoid transcription errors and the potential for manipulation of the data, each entry is separately transcribed by three volunteers. After transcription has finished the data is checked for accuracy and consistency, before being sent to the Met Office.
Sharing the data
The transcribed data is then standardised into a format called IMMA (International Maritime Meteorological Archive) and integrated into the International Comprehensive Ocean Data Set (ICOADS). From ICOADS the Old Weather data can be accessed by climate scientists around the world.
As climate scientist Philip Brohan explains, these Old Weather data are used in at least five major climate reconstructions including 20CR Version 3 (NOAA/University of Colorado), Era-Clim (ECMWF), SODA (Texas A&M), HURDAT (NOAA) and HadISST2 (Met Office).
Making a contribution
Since the project began thousands of people have made a contribution to the Old Weather project. Researchers from UCL have conducted in depth research about the motivations of these Old Weather volunteers.
Many of these contributors have made a small number of contributions, however there are a core of highly active volunteers who have been engaged with Old Weather for a number of years.
The Old Weather volunteers that we spoke to demonstrated a strong sense of social responsibility, and a desire to make a contribution to climate science through their work on the project:
I’ve got a concern for the planet, you know, and the way that we treat it and so on. And so actually doing something that was in some way going to contribute to that kind of research attracted me. That was definitely the initial thing. I was thinking this is an amazing source of information, you know, all these logs, but there’s no way of getting at them unless people get in there and do it because computers can’t read the writing. [OW_1]
I mean to my mind the name of the game is trying to find out what’s going on with the climate. [OW_2]
I’m trying to do my bit [for climate change]… when I wasn’t transcribing I did feel a bit guilty. [OW_1]
Volunteers took pride in the quality and accuracy of the contributions they made:
The handwriting varies enormously…that’s definitely one of the main frustrations is just trying to decipher what it is, and trying to make sure, particularly with the weather records that you’re as accurate as possible. [OW_1]
We observed on the forums that volunteers responded enthusiastically when their contributions were recognised by climate scientists, for example when climate scientists talked about specific projects that were using their data.
One post from a volunteer reported a recent teleconference at which a number of well known climate scientists said “some wonderful things” about the Old Weather community. Their work was identified as being “extremely helpful to data analysis” and making climate scientists “job[s] very much easier”. The project as a whole was identified as having “changed world-wide perceptions of how to recover old data in many fields” and the volunteers were told that they “should be very proud of what [they] have achieved.” The forum community was very pleased to hear their work was so appreciated and useful:
It helps to get you through the inevitable tedious bits to know that the work is appreciated and used by the experts. (#2)
Sometimes you wonder what’s happening to all the work….then you get a report like this and you KNOW what you’re doing is right. Thanks so much for this report…and to all the others in the system that we rarely see/hear from. (#3)
Thanks for sharing this, Janet. It’s great to know that what we’ve worked our way towards has really changed perceptions of what volunteers can achieve (#4)
WOW! I knew our work was useful, but I didn’t know it was THAT useful! (#6)
The core contributors we spoke to both had free time that they were able to dedicate to leisure activities. The Old Weather project was perceived by them to be a productive form of recreation to engage in:
I mean it tends to be something I do in the evening when I’m listening to the radio. It goes very well with Radio 4…So I’ll do that and I can be doing something, you know, sort of productive at the same time. So it’s basically a sort of leisure time activity… it’s not just purely you know, passing the time if you like…it’s contributing something useful, but it’s also interesting and educational, and you know, kind of community building and, yes all sorts of things. [OW_1]
I thought, do you know I’ve been meaning to do some citizen science for a long time, just on the basis of, you know, there’s a computer sat at home, it’s doing nothing, I have some spare time. Well, you could probably call some spare time, why not give it a go. [OW_2]
The Old Weather project online forum acts as a community hub where members of the project congregate to discuss and find humour both in their Old Weather transcribing and their wider lives:
I think it’s quite a remarkable place, and I think it’s probably quite a large part of what keeps most of the hard core interested and whatever. You know because it’s not just you sitting at your computer in isolation transcribing away, you know it’s also actually relating to other people who are doing it. [OW_1]
It’s really nice to know that there’s somebody else out there who kind of cares for you as part of the party.[OW_2]
In the chat thread someone has just announced the birth of his first child, for example, one of the transcribers [laughs]. And we have that quite a bit you know, people are telling each other about important things in their lives, or that they’re going off on holiday so they won’t be around for a bit, but they’ll put some photographs up when they come back, and this kind of thing. So it’s got a real kind of community sense, as well as being a very useful source of can anybody read this writing, does anybody know what’s happening here. [OW_2]
The community was also enthusiastic about publicly recognising one another’s contributions. The quotes below are a series of posts on the Old Weather Forum in response to the publication of a blog post written by community members:
Good job, you two. (#390)
Wow Job here lots of hard work. Way to go everyone! (#391)
Impressive job combining all those logs! (#392)
Great job! (#393)
Tour de Force – congratulations to all involved. It is a great blog. Brought a tear to my eye. (#394)
…Thanks for collating the logs. (#395)
I did love the way Caro interweaved the 9 logs. Impressive. (#396)
Wow, this is both impressive and fascinating… (#397)
Brilliant bit of weaving together the logs. (#398)
For some of the volunteers it was the historical context of the data they were transcribing that captured their interest and motivated their daily work on the project. Some of the Old Weather volunteers experienced a strong sense of connection with the crews of the ships taking the observations they were transcribing:
I mean on one of the ships I was on…the number of the sick list kept going up, and of course it was the influenza epidemic. And I remember realising that I was really quite anxious about this ship and this crew…And I was thinking this is silly, you know, this is all a very long time ago, whatever’s happened has happened. But I realised I was really getting quite anxious about my crew, and you know, hoping that they were all going to, you know, having come through the war that they were actually going to come through the flu epidemic. [OW_1]
I’m very moved by the fact that having battled to sink the German ships, they then go all out to pick up survivors. (Contribution to the Old Weather Forum)
Whilst the Old Weather community is strong and their work is recognised as valuable by many climate scientists, members demonstrated a keen awareness of the project’s vulnerability. Relying on voluntary labour means the project is dependent upon keeping the intrinsic motivation of participants high. The factors discussed above contribute to this process, however there have been periods in the project’s history where this motivation has been lower. For example, when the project shifted from transcribing Royal Navy ships to American vessels and lost a lot of volunteers.
I think we were on a knife edge at that particular moment, it was very scary. We did lose a lot of people who decided that actually, the whole thing meant so much to them that to cut and run was probably the only sensible way to deal with it. And there’s people like me who actually can’t imagine life without it…And somehow we got ourselves through that, and I mean I realised early on what we’d done, and I think then it was a case of everybody trying to be as jolly as they could, keep the things goings, lauding the work that we were doing so far. Picking up interesting things from the American ships to try and make them look as interesting as the Royal Naval ones had been. [OW_2]
Despite this vulnerability, the Old Weather project holds strong and the volunteers continue to make a significant contribution to climate science.
- Transcript of interview with Helen J [OW_1]
- Audio recording of interview with Helen J [OW_1]
- Transcript of interview with Joan Arthur [OW_2]
- Audio recording of interview with Joan Arthur [OW_2]
- Old Weather project forum
We’d like you to take a minute to reflect on what you have read above and add a comment to the discussion below.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- How do you think the cultural values of the volunteers might impact upon the production and quality of the data transcribed by the Old Weather project?
- What do you think it is that keeps the core volunteers so committed to the Old Weather project?
- What different types of value do you think the project and its data hold for the volunteers and the climate scientists that use it?
- How do you feel about climate scientists’ use of data generated by volunteer citizen scientists?
Once you have posted a comment, follow the Yellow line to the Met Office by clicking the link on the right, or if you prefer navigate to another station using the map at the top of the page.
By posting a comment you confirm that you agree to our conditions of participation.